Here’s Why You Should Always Take Notes the Old-Fashioned Way—and Not on Your Laptop

As more and more students bring their laptops into the classroom, some of their professors are wondering whether it's helping...or hurting? Well, the research is in, and your college-age kid may not want to hear it.

beeboys/ShutterstockThe secrets of straight-A students include setting priorities, staying organized, and taking good notes. And when it comes to taking notes, the pen is mightier than the keyboard, according to many scientists.

In a widely-cited article published in Psychological Science, Pam A. Mueller, PhD, of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, PhD, of UCLA revealed that in three separate studies they conducted, taking notes by hand led to better learning than tapping it out on a laptop. In each case, students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who had taken notes longhand.

“When people type their notes, they have this tendency to try to take verbatim notes and write down as much of the lecture as they can,” Dr. Mueller told NPR. But when students take notes by hand, they’re forced to be “more selective” since no one can write as fast as they type.

Turns out that the extra processing of the material, which was required in order to curate which material to write down, was helpful. Whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, Drs. Mueller and Oppenheimer wrote in their article, the tendency to transcribe the entirety of lectures without processing and reframing the information proved “detrimental” to learning.

Drs. Mueller and Oppenheimer noted many other researchers have suggested that laptop note-taking is less effective than longhand note taking for learning, but prior studies had focused primarily on students’ capacity for multitasking and distraction when using laptops. A recent study out of Michigan State University confirms these prior studies and goes so far as to suggest that students who bring laptops into the classroom tend to end up with poorer grades for the class. This study, which was also published in Psychological Science found that:

  • Internet use was common among students who brought laptops to class
  • Internet use wasn’t beneficial to classroom performance even when it was class-related
  • Internet use was downright detrimental to classroom performance when it was non-academic related

The results were consistent even after the researchers accounted for the students’ individual levels of motivation, intelligence, and interest in the subject matter. In other words, the Internet proved to be an equal-opportunity distraction among all students.

This may not be music to the ears of the parents whose kids have just left for college, laptops in hand. However, if you’re one of those parents, and you’re worried you’ve just sent your child off to school with the electronic tool of his academic failure, all is not lost. Talk to your college kid about what to aim for when taking notes in class, and remind him or her not to spend their classroom time on Facebook.

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